This morning, in dueling op-eds on AOL News, yours truly (a.k.a. Mr. Buttinsky) debated with James Taylor of the Heartland Institute about whether California should ban plastic bags. It was a hard debate to have because the answer is so obvious: we need to get rid of plastic bags, as they are one more ecological problem we don’t need (California uses 19 billion plastic bags every year!). My side of the debate focused simply on the best way to get rid of the bags, by either banning them or taxing them.
Of course, Mr. Taylor went through all the reasons why we environmentalists are just meddling busybodies, arguing that there’s no reason to ban plastic bags and pointing to their low energy use and how difficult it is to remember to bring them with you. But my favorite line is about how canvas bags will get dirty and conveying that washing them will take more energy than producing plastic:
“Reusable canvas bags are likely to become downright gross in no time. The next time you buy ice cream, notice how much of it sticks to the outside of the carton, ready to turn a canvas shopping bag into a gooey mess and a feeding station for ants and cockroaches. Notice, too, how much juice leaks from the fruit salad container and how much bacteria-infested gook leaks from meat packages.
Keeping canvas bags sanitary and reusable will require frequent additional cycles for your washer and dryer. These extra laundry cycles, of course, result in more energy use, more air pollutants from electricity generation, and more water pollution from detergents.”
I wonder if his calculation includes all the energy used to drill the oil to make the bags, build the machinery, and transport the bags, not to mention the centuries it takes for plastic to break down in the environment and all the life it disrupts as it does so. But more importantly, as a regular user of a canvas grocery bag, I want to assure Mr. Taylor that I rarely have to wash them—and I often buy ice cream.
With this concern out of the way, let’s focus again on the best way to get rid of plastic bags: by banning or taxing them. Because there are people like Mr. Taylor in the world, I propose a tax, as this will minimize critics’ whining and preserve their freedom of choice (a point Michael Maniates explains very well in State of the World 2010). As the example of Washington, D.C., shows, a tax can cut plastic bag usage from 22 million to 3 million in just one month. And that, after all, is the goal: to be “buttinskies” and change how people behave so that the Earth remains healthy enough to sustain vibrant human societies.